Let Freedom Sing: At the Top of Their Lungs
“All censorships exist to prevent anyone from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently, the first condition of progress is the removal of censorship.” – George Bernard Shaw
As the 1990s rolled in, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) continued to employ the wishy-washy intimidation tactic they used with Randy Newman’s “Short People” in various other cases. “What happened was that the FCC issued radio stations with what they call a ‘Notice of Apparent Liability,’” says Svetlana Mintcheva of the National Coalition Against Censorship. “That is, ‘Perhaps what you are playing is indecent.’ And, ‘Perhaps you are liable to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines.’ So radio stations, of course, stopped playing it. The FCC did not decide — they just said, ‘Maybe you are.’”
Part of the problem, as Mintcheva sees it, is that “We’re still living with an obscenity law refined in 1973. … There’s no blanket exclusion of material that’s so-called indecent material from First Amendment protection, but indecency, as a concept, operates in broadcast media. In broadcast media, the government — i.e., the Federal Communications Commission — has the right to regulate what’s out on the airwaves.” The regulations on indecency are – perhaps purposely – vague, which leads both artists and outlets to self-censor. Mintcheva continues, “Radio stations are reluctant to play anything that has lyrics that are explicit, so, in response, producers are making clean versions of songs or just doing them clean to begin with.”
All of that self-censorship got an extra kick in the pants when, in 1985, Tipper Gore’s Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) was formed and “Parental Advisory” labels were affixed to albums that contained lyrics that might be inappropriate for children. Sure, it was a voluntary rating system, but it was censorship nonetheless. Ken Paulson of the First Amendment Center calls it “regulation through intimidation.” It’s a pattern that started with the movie industry’s MPAA model in the 1930s, continued with the Comics Code Authority in the 1950s, and reared its head again with the PMRC in the 1980s. Paulson explains, “The pattern was clear and, on the face of it, there’s nothing wrong with an industry saying, ‘We are going to advise parents about the content of albums that may contain language or imagery that is inappropriate for young people.’ There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. That’s actually being responsible.
“But what happened is then Walmart said, ‘Well, if it has one of those advisory stickers, we’re not carrying it.’ So, when one of the world’s biggest retailers says, ‘Thank you for that self-regulation. We’ll now use that as a hammer against your industry,’ then that transforms the sticker. … That’s where it went wrong. The industry is being punished for being responsible.”
All of a sudden, the free market is not so free. Walmart not only banned albums with Parental Advisory labels, they went a few steps further, also rebuffing music that dealt with homosexuality, abortion, or Satanism. On Sheryl Crow’s 1996 eponymous album, the song “Redemption Day” included the lyric “Watch our children as they kill each other with a gun they bought at Walmart discount stores.” Crow refused to change the line, so the megachain refused to carry the album. That same year, John Mellencamp was forced to airbrush the cover art of Mr. Happy-Go-Lucky to blur out an angel and a devil. Over the years since, Nirvana, Beck, 311, Catherine Wheel, Primitive Radio Gods, and others tripped over Walmart’s various lines in the censorship sand.
“Restriction of free thought and free speech is the most dangerous of all subversions. It is the one un-American act that could most easily defeat us.” – William O. Douglas
Another way that access to the marketplace has been restricted circles back to the broadcasters – but it’s not about FCC rules. It’s about politics, and cynicism. After September 11, 2001, Clear Channel issued a memorandum to its more than 1,200 stations listing “lyrically questionable” songs that should not be played, including Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World,” John Lennon’s “Imagine,” Jackson Browne’s “Doctor My Eyes,” Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” Cat Stevens’ “Peace Train,” and many more. Not even two years later, another Clear Channel storm erupted, with the Dixie Chicks at the center.
During a performance in London on March 10, 2003 — nine days before the United States invaded Iraq — lead singer Natalie Maines told the crowd, “Just so you know, we’re on the good side with y’all. We don’t want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.” Clarifications, explanations, and apologies followed, but none of it was enough to stanch the bleeding. Fans, sponsors, and radio stations raced each other to distance themselves from the group. Boycotts and death threats followed, too, all of which are documented in the thoroughly disturbing and poignant documentary film Shut Up and Sing. As Mintcheva points out, “It was not even in their music. And that’s another thing … artists have to self-censor because the radio stations that are putting their music out could be more conservative than the artist and they can decide not to play their music. With media consolidation, when somebody like Clear Channel decides to not play certain songs, it affects many markets in the country; it’s not just one local market.”
Would the same result have transpired if Bruce Springsteen or Madonna had given voice to that same statement? Maybe. But maybe not. The country music audience is considerably more conservative, in a lot of ways, than their pop counterparts. “There’s no question that there’s a limited political spectrum acceptable to country radio, and the Dixie Chicks paid the price for that,” Paulson notes. “And, to this day, it’s really difficult to make a meaningful political statement in country music.”
Songwriter Trevor Rosen, who is also a member of country-rock band Old Dominion, understands the very thin ice country music songwriters and artists are on: “With the Dixie Chicks, that’s a weird thing because you try to walk this line between … you want to speak your mind. You don’t want to sound like a robot just preprogrammed to say things you’re expected to say. You want to feel like you can make a statement. But, as an artist, it can really affect your career. That killed the Dixie Chicks. Should it have? Should they be able to speak their minds and say what they needed to say? There are a lot of other things that people have said that may have caused some controversy, but didn’t instantly end their careers.”
Walking the line as either a purveyor of free speech or a victim of censorship is, no doubt, a tricky thing for artists. It’s the creative muse versus the capitalist machine, with ever-shifting do’s and don’ts coming at you from your audience and your outlets, if not from the government. “I think you always have a third eye on it. There’s probably a sense of lines you don’t cross and invisible boundaries, but most of the writers I write with, we attack it from a sense of not having any boundaries. We’ll kind of go there and let the song take us wherever we’re going to go,” Rosen adds. “I think a lot of people right now are feeling free to do that. Whether that ends up being the songs you hear on the radio is another story.” And therein beats the heart of the matter: If a song is controversial and no one’s allowed to hear it, does it make a sound?
“The only valid censorship of ideas is the right of people not to listen.” – Tommy Smothers
Flash forward a decade to find the women of country music speaking their controversial minds all over the place. Ashley Monroe, Brandy Clark, and Kacey Musgraves all released albums in 2013 that critics hurried to put at the top of their “Best Albums of the Year” lists. Across those three records were topics like weed, unplanned pregnancy, prescription drug addiction, homosexuality, adultery, revenge, and more. Loretta Lynn may have had “The Pill,” but Monroe has “Weed Instead of Roses.” And where Lynn went to “Fist City,” Clark counters with “Stripes.”
“That is one place where I feel really lucky as a woman. We get to paint with a few more colors,” Clark says. “For example, “Stripes” … a male artist pointed out to me that he could never sing that. A guy could never even joke about wanting to shoot his wife. That is one place — it might be a little harder, right now, for female artists at radio — but we are able to talk about some things that guys can’t. And I think it’s our responsibility to do it.”
Country radio stations may still be making it harder for female artists, but that’s not stopping them – in fact, that’s helping them find a broader audience with both pop and Americana audiences. Musgraves’ gold-certified Same Trailer, Different Park has all those controversial themes in it, but it also has two Grammy Awards. “Follow Your Arrow,” with its lines about smoking joints and kissing girls, even nabbed a Country Music Association Song of the Year trophy for Musgraves and her co-writers, Clark and Shane McAnally. It was a bold move for a young artist to make, but it has paid off. And the lesson is not lost on anyone. Clark continues, “It’s like Kacey doing ‘Follow Your Arrow.’ When I wrote that with her, I never in a million years thought she would record that. I mean, she’s got some balls. Not to be crude, but it’s true. To just put a song like that out there. And it makes her different. So what that radio didn’t play that song. People are getting tattoos of it.”
Trevor Rosen, who also co-wrote The Band Perry’s edgy “Better Dig Two” with Clark and McAnally, offers that it might not be what you say, but how you say it: “It is in the presentation, but all of that stuff has been around. Like Kacey Musgraves has a song out where she mentions ‘roll up a joint’ and they bleeped that out. But there are other songs that mention pot smoking in some form or other that don’t get bleeped. So, it’s like, ‘What makes that one get bleeped and this one not?’ Think of Eric Clapton. I hear the song ‘Cocaine’ come on and I go, ‘Could anybody put this song out now?’ Nobody could put that out now, but it still gets played at classic rock all the time. There’s no set standard to it, really.”
Standards or not, in the broader roots music world, quite a few folks continue to speak truth to power through song regardless of the marketplace’s response — Ani DiFranco, Jackson Browne, Ben Harper, Todd Snider, Citizen Cope, and Arlo Guthrie among them. But, often, their messages are a bit more tempered than “Strange Fruit” or “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Hiss Golden Messenger’s MC Taylor notes, “Frankly, some of the lines that we recognized as battle lines back in the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, ’70s are not as stark. We have people like Steve Earle, people like Hurray for the Riff Raff … there are people singing protest songs. Part of the issue here is that, as the political and the personal get more tangled together, I feel like there are a lot of people that take a very real stance on civil rights, but might not be singing protest songs. You have someone like the Indigo Girls who are very clearly dealing with civil rights in a very personal way, and they were doing that in the ’80s and ’90s.”
The tangling of political and personal has always been an issue in music and art, just like the muddling of church and state has been in other aspects of life and liberty. And, sometimes, those forces collide within a single syllable. A few months back, when Sturgill Simpson performed “Living the Dream” on Conan, he sang the lyric “I don’t have to do a goddamn thing except sit around and wait to die.” The censors grabbed the second half of “goddamn,” but viewers were up in arms anyway and not at all shy about telling Simpson so on his Facebook page.
Neither was Simpson shy in his response:
Since I’m self-funding/self-releasing my art instead of shooting for ACM awards and taking it up the ass from the Music Row man, I have the right to write and sing and say whatever I choose just as you have the right to not buy or listen to my music, and stay away from my page, if you don’t like it.
His pointed diatribe ended with words that might make our nation’s Founding Fathers proud:
So with that said…
1. I sang it like I wrote it.
2. Censorship is bullshit.
3. This is America and people can say anything they want including “goddamn” at the top of their lungs on national TV.
And, so, from litigation to lynchings, from blacklists to boycotts, the grand experiment that is freedom of expression in America treads lightly forward with each passing decade of time and every fleeting whim of power. But, as John Peter Zenger did nearly 300 years ago and as Sturgill Simpson did just months ago, artists continue to stand up, speak out, and let their freedom sing. And we are all the better for it.
Kacey Musgraves photo courtesy Sandbox Management.
This is the third and final article in a three-part series about free speech and censorship in American roots music. (Read part one: “When Roots Music Says the Unsayable” and part two: “A Change Is Trying to Come.”)